SLS workforce
Employees gather in front of the first Space Launch System core stage as it is rolled out in January 2020. A NASA safety panel recommends the agency develop a strategic plan for guiding the future size and composition of its workforce. Credit: NASA

COLORADO SPRINGS — While the space industry workforce continues to increase, there are signs the industry may be struggling to attract people, which could stifle its long-term growth.

At a briefing during the 37th Space Symposium April 4, the Space Foundation released new data on the size of the core space industry workforce in the United States. That research found that there were 151,797 people working in the industry in 2021, an 18.4% increase over the last five years.

That growth continued even during the pandemic. “We did not see a dip in the space sector with COVID,” said Mariel Borowitz, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who worked on the employment data released by the Space Foundation. That growth is driven by manufacturing of launch vehicles and spacecraft.

Salaries have also grown, she said, with the average space industry salary more than double the overall average private sector salary. “Working in the U.S. space sector is a pretty good place to be.”

That good news, though, is tempered by concerns about training new employees, particularly for skilled labor positions like technicians. “There’s a real concern about the labor supply that is available, particularly in precision manufacturing,” said Lesley Conn, director of research and analysis at the Space Foundation.

The organization’s research found enrollment in two-year programs for these fields has been dropping for the last four years. “When you look at the pipeline of students and new employees entering some of the fields where we see the demand, we’re not seeing the growth,” she said. Educators, she added, say they’re not seeing interest from students in those fields.

She said that lack of interest appears to be a perception issue among students and young employees. That includes concerns they have about being able to handle math and engineering work. Another issue is the belief that this is “blue-collar, grungy, exhausting work” that’s less desirable than other disciplines.

The Space Foundation is taking steps to address those perceptions by working to “demystify” the fields and also show what work in the industry is really like. “No one will say that space isn’t cool,” said Kelli Kedis Ogborn, vice president of space commerce and entrepreneurship at the Space Foundation. “But, a lot of times they self-select out because they don’t see their skill set or interests applying.”

That is creating a “pain point” for space companies current as they seek to attract new employees. “It is driving up wages. There’s competition within companies to hire away,” Conn said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...